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An Excerpt from “John Berryman and Robert Giroux” by Patrick Samway S.J.

John Berryman and Robert Giroux: A Publishing Friendship (October 2020) provides new perspectives on the lives and work of two major figures in American poetry and publishing in the second half of the twentieth century: Robert Giroux (1914–2008), editor-in-chief of Harcourt, Brace and Company and later of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and John Berryman (1914–1972), Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and Shakespearean scholar who also received a National Book Award and a Bollingen Prize for Poetry. From their first meeting as undergraduates at Columbia College in New York City in the early 1930s, Giroux and Berryman became lifelong friends and publishing partners. Patrick Samway received unprecedented access to Giroux’s letters and essays. By incorporating either sections or whole letters of the correspondence between Berryman and Giroux into this book, Samway makes available for the first time a historical account of their relationship, including revealing portraits of their personal lives.

From Chapter One: The Early Years and Columbia College

The fragments we know of Berryman’s early life reveal unabsorbed trauma leading to an endless succession of personal struggles. Born on October 25, 1914, in McAlester, Oklahoma, John Allyn Smith Jr. (Berryman’s original name) was the son of Martha Little Smith and John Allyn Smith (sometimes called Allyn), who had married two years before in All Saints Catholic Church in McAlester. At the time of her marriage, Martha converted to Catholicism, the religion of her husband, though their religious beliefs seemed to make them incompatible with each other. Martha later maintained that Allyn, seven years her senior, had previously raped her, but this could have been a fabrication, for she was known for dissembling certain events in her life. (Giroux told me that, on the occasion of the baptism of Berryman’s daughter, Sarah, for whom Giroux served as godfather, Berryman’s mother had confirmed to Giroux, as he told me, that Allyn had indeed raped her and that only after she had become pregnant did she agree to marry him.) She even wrote to her son, John, something that no son ever wants to hear from his mother: “I did not love him [Allyn] and have long felt wretchedly guilty because of what came of us to him [sic].” As Berryman grew, he tried relentlessly to decipher, without success, the import of these words.

As the Smiths moved around the state, Allyn worked in local banks in Lamar, Wagoner, and Anadarko (where, it seems, he was forced to resign) and then briefly, and not always successfully, as a state game and fish warden and captain in the 160th Field Artillery at Fort Sill. While in Anadarko, the Smiths, including John’s younger brother, Robert Jefferson, born on September 1, 1919, attended Holy Family Church, where John made his first communion in 1923 and served as an altar boy. Two years later, Martha and Allyn moved to Tampa, Florida, where Martha’s mother had given her daughter and Allyn some property as a wedding present. After half of this property had been sold to purchase a restaurant, Allyn unloaded the rest at a loss against his mother-in-law’s wishes. In the interim, John and Robert briefly attended a mission boarding school, Saint Joseph’s Academy in Chickasha, run by the Sisters of Saint Francis. These were not the happiest times for either boy as they coped with separation from their parents.

Once in Florida, the four Smiths adjusted to the postwar economy during the presidency of Calvin Coolidge. Government aid to the depressed agricultural sector seemed shortsighted as nearly five thousand rural banks in the Midwest and South shut their doors in bankruptcy. Thousands of farmers lost their lands. Tax cuts contributed to an uneven distribution of wealth. The economic prosperity within Florida created conditions for a real estate bubble, as outside investors from around the country considered Florida a glamorous, tropical paradise. Land prices were based solely upon the expectation of finding a customer, not upon land value, and, in the midtwenties, the inevitable slowdown began in the real estate industry as new customers failed to arrive and old customers sold their land. During this time, the Smiths experienced marital problems and contemplated divorce. John’s father took up with a Cuban woman, and John’s mother began an affair with John Angus McAlpin Berryman, sixteen years her senior, the owner of the Kipling Arms on Clearwater Island across the bay from Tampa. After the family moved to an apartment at the Kipling Arms, Allyn, according to his wife, admitted being unfaithful. On June 26, 1926, he shot himself in the chest with a .32 caliber revolver, though, curiously, no traces of the usual powder burns were detected.

Soon transplanted to New York, Martha married John Angus (sometimes called Uncle Jack) on September 8, 1926, in the Church of the Transfiguration in Manhattan—just ten weeks after the death of young John’s father. Though Martha reverted to her Episcopalian roots for her second marriage, most likely in an effort to develop stronger spiritual values, she never succeeded in creating a strong family unit. Her relationship with her new husband grew more unsettling as time went by. Perhaps she pretended to love John Angus during the thirteen years of their marriage, or perhaps she just wanted to avoid having her sons grow up fatherless, or perhaps she never knew how to reciprocate the love he had for her and her boys. Most likely the nature of their alliance remained unclear—even to her. However much John Angus tried, he could never fill the deep void left in young John’s heart by the death of his biological father.

Many questions went unanswered after Allyn’s death. Martha had previously taken her husband to see a psychiatrist, and, after sensing imminent danger, she removed five of the six bullets from his revolver. One could well ask: why did she not remove all of them? Eileen Simpson (Berryman’s first wife, who later preferred to use the last name of her second husband) believed that her former mother-in-law periodically reworked the ever-changing myth about Allyn’s death, resolutely repeating to her son what seemed to be a constant refrain: “In the name of God, John, it is my deepest conviction that your father did not intentionally kill himself.” Years later, Giroux met John Angus, whom Mrs. Berryman introduced as her husband but not as John’s father. It took a while for Giroux to figure out that John Berryman’s biological father was the late John Allyn Smith. Gradually, Giroux put the pieces together, confirming what he had suspected for years: Mrs. Berryman, whom he referred to in my presence as “crazy paranoid” and as someone who ruined John’s life, had murdered her husband. John Angus’s oldest sister, Cora, known as Aunt Code, believed likewise. According to a brief statement in Berryman’s private journal, it crossed his mind, too, that his mother had killed his father, though, as late as July 1967, his mother explicitly denied this. Giroux was more circumspect on this topic years later: “Though Berryman’s tragic illness (alcoholism) crippled his later years and ended in suicide, I repeat my conviction, as his close friend, editor, and publisher, that biographers have underrated his lifelong torment over his father’s suicide, as well as the sinister role of his possessive mother.” Martha also recounted to Giroux how Allyn had once tried to drown John and perhaps also Robert, then a child, though only John seemed to recall such an incident, something that his mother had earlier described to him. Simpson, who undoubtedly knew Giroux’s views because they remained close friends throughout the years, reserved judgment in her final comment on the tragedy of Berryman’s father: “The circumstances of his death I heard recounted so often, and so variously, that to this day they remain a puzzle.”

This blog post is part of the Enriching Scholarly Communication and Connections through Notre Dame Press project and has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at www.neh.gov.

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